Photo/Illutration The Tamura-Shoten bookstore, founded in 1904, is seen on Sept. 14 in the Kanda-Jinbocho district of Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Ikuro Aiba)

Amid the dreary and oppressive social climate of wartime Japan, there once was a rental bookstore that must have felt like a veritable oasis to its patrons.

Called Kamakura Bunko, it was opened in the final months of World War II in 1945 in the Kanagawa Prefecture city of Kamakura by local writers who had lost their publication outlets and were desperate for a source of income.

Stocked with books the authors contributed, the store proved an instant success.

With high-profile writers such as Jun Takami (1907-1965) and Masao Kume (1891-1952) taking turns at the till, it was very much a do-it-yourself kind of enterprise.

In those days, films and plays available for public consumption were severely limited, and magazines were hard to come by. People snapped up the store's selection of light novels, books of poetry and historical fiction, according to “Kashihon-ya Kamakura Bunko Shimatsuki” (Chronicle of the rental bookstore Kamakura Bunko) by Tatsuo Kagoshima.

The clientele was said to consist mainly of so-called mobilized students working for the war effort. 

The stifling atmosphere of today's society cannot possibly be compared to that during the war. However, the coronavirus pandemic is apparently causing more young people to read books. 

In the latest national survey of adolescents aged 17 to 19 by the Nippon Foundation, an impressive 24.9 percent said the pandemic has “increased their reading volume.” Their restricted daily lives may have somewhat slowed the tendency of teenagers to shun books.

Come to think of it, feeling cooped up likely makes reading feel like having a “friend” to turn to, allowing one to flee the confining reality of daily life and find escape in a book, where life can unfold in many different ways and make you see the insignificance of your problems.

A book can transport one to an unfamiliar foreign country, or to a totally different era to play in.  

Science fiction is a good choice when you need an escape. A work by U.S. author Philip K. Dick (1928-1982), which I hadn't read in quite a while, drew me immediately into a somewhat disturbing world of the future.

One problem, though, is that you get so engrossed, it takes a while to return to the real world.

This year's “Dokusho Shukan” (Book Week) has just started in Japan.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 29     

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.